Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 821
A Treatise on the Social Contract: Or, The Principles of Politic Law, commonly known as The Social Contract, is a product of Rousseau’s retreat from Paris. This examination of government appeared in 1762, the same year as Émile, his treatise on education. In The Confessions, Rousseau emphasizes the awkwardness that he felt in society. He was a deeply solitary man who found social life distracting and distasteful. Yet when he reflected on society, Rousseau created a work that provided posterity with the vocabulary, with the terms and assumptions that would be employed, consciously or unconsciously, to address social issues for the next two centuries and beyond.
“Man is born free, and yet we see him everywhere in chains.” Thus Rousseau opens his treatise on human government, establishing his unique point of view. He continues: “Those who believe themselves the masters of others cease not to be even greater slaves than the people they govern.” Rousseau is himself a master at noting the contradictions underlying all generally accepted values. Perhaps that is one explanation for the enormous influence of the work.
The Social Contract is a major source, for example, of the doctrine of popular sovereignty. Almost all modern states claim to be “people’s states.” Public deliberation, mass demonstrations, voting, plebiscites, all rituals for arousing a popular will are as necessary to authoritarian states as to liberal ones. It is generally accepted that The Social Contract exposes a doctrine that is valid. The only argument concerns its interpretation.
Rousseau, whose master in political philosophy was Plato, knew that the problems of contemporary democracy arise from the fact that the ideals of that form of government were developed in the intimate community of the Greek city-state and are inapplicable to the needs of the centralized and technological nation-state. Yet, as a moralist, Rousseau is mainly concerned with the principles of political rightness. His analysis was complicated by a nostalgic idealization of ancient city-states and his own native city of Geneva. Rousseau’s ambition in The Social Contract is to establish a political jurisdiction. He does not intend to describe law as it is but rather as it should be. In other words, his concern is to specify the conditions for a just society. Might does not make right, nor does the fact that a system exists mean that it exists for good. Rousseau speaks as a philosopher rather than a historian.
The central problem of the social contract is to determine the type of social organization that will ensure security to each individual. Security is, in fact, the necessary condition for happiness in society. The desire for security is the motive for the evolution from the state of nature to civilization. Yet security must be made compatible with freedom, for the sacrifice of freedom is the sacrifice of the essence of humanity. In Rousseau’s theory, the recurring problems of the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes and of John Locke are reconsidered. Security and liberty are the two criteria according to which the State is organized.
Rousseau rejects any authority based on natural advantages or the rights of force. The only legitimate basis for authority is a contract or covenant between the parties concerned. Under that authority, the people must be allowed to exercise their rights. The sovereignty of the people is “inalienable” and “indivisible.” In a social system, each individual has a pact with himself or herself. “Obedience to a law that one has given oneself, is freedom.” To the question as to how a person may be free while subject to law, Rousseau answers with the often misunderstood notion of the “general will.” This principle is for Rousseau the cornerstone of any democracy. It is reflected in his famous dictum that people may be forced to be free: Even convicts are free in the sense that they are imprisoned by their own general wills, which require that people who follow their private wills in the way that they have shall be punished. The individual who differs from the community is private, wrong, and enslaved; the individual whose will is unified with that of the community is general, right, and free.
Those who were tired of apologies for the ancien régime found in the general will an instrument for reducing public affairs to simpler terms. The middle class, increasingly insulted by the distinction that separated them from the nobility, found in the general will a version of its own dignity and political intelligence. In particular, Rousseau’s inference that government is simply the servant of the people inspired those who were opposed to the existing regime, while, to its defenders, seemingly undermining the very basis of social order. The Social Contract insisted so much on the obligations of government to the people that, to those in power, it seemed to be an open invitation to permanant revolution. The censorship by Rousseau’s native Geneva consecrated the revolutionary force of his tract.